New biography attempts to cash in on Madiba

Long Walk to Freedom is still popular. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Long Walk to Freedom is still popular. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Nelson Mandela Biography: The Life of a loved Legend by the apparently United States-based Anthony Beckham is not a sprawling, detailed work; it comes to 25 pages if you count generously. Nor is it a particularly mesmerising read. It may, in fact, be a solid contender for one of the worst books ever written.

A typical paragraph reads as follows: "It is said that members of the Khoisan terminology categories are the earliest remaining inhabitants of the area, but only a few are left in the southern part of Africa these days – and they are in the European segment.
Most of modern dark the southern part of Africans are part of the Bantu terminology team, which shifted south from main land African, deciding in the Transvaal area sometime before AD 100 [sic]."

That paragraph – and the entire book – is the result of thesaurusing, the process of taking segments of text and replacing enough of the words with synonyms to defeat automated plagiarism checkers. When done well, thesaurusing, or its equivalents such as double translation, can produce text that is only marginally peculiar to read. When done poorly, such as in Nelson Mandela Biography, it leads to phrases such as describing the first colony ­established in South Africa as "the Cape of Excellent Wish".

Yet that has not prevented it from outselling some versions of Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom on Amazon's Kindle store since the Beckham book was self-published on June 15, the week after Mandela was hospitalised. As of this week, it rated number 39 in books on Mandela sold by Amazon. The first five on the Amazon list are all different editions of Long Walk.

Nelson Mandela Biography is just one example of attempts to cash in on the worldwide interest in the elder statesman since his hospitalisation on June 8. The intervening weeks have seen the publication of a rash of similarly dodgy e-books, the launch of a number of transparently fraudulent fundraising schemes using his name, and the sudden online appearance of any number of consumer products bearing his name or likeness – few are likely to actually be delivered to shoppers, and fewer still are authorised to use his name or image.

Pecking around the edges
But while the parasites are pecking around the edges, the real new Mandela money is being made by way of legitimate projects, some of which just happen to have had excellent timing to coincide with renewed interest.

"There's certainly been a boost in interest about all things Mandela," says Richard Stengel, who collaborated with Mandela for two years on Long Walk to Freedom and also wrote Mandela's Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love and Courage, which was updated at the end of 2012.

"I think people want to look at the entire arc of his life. And young people might not be familiar with his early years as an ANC activist and founder of MK [Umkhonto we Sizwe]."

Stengel's books, and other real biographies, have been selling fast. How fast, exactly, is not yet clear; South Africa's largest book retailer, Exclusive Books, refuses to provide sales data, and numbers on the sales of physical books are not available from publishers until several months after the sales take place.

But walk into any bookshop in South Africa – and around the world – and you will find special ­promotions and prominent placement of the likes of Long Walk, and anecdotal evidence is compelling.

"We have a lot of people asking for [Mandela books], the big tomes," says a manager of a flagship Johannesburg chain store who is not authorised to speak to the media.

"They come in and buy one of each, or they buy a couple of copies to give to other people."

Tapping into the holiday market
With several hundred books on, about and even by Mandela currently in print, the effect of the uptick is thinly spread. On the big screen, however, there will be only one real contender. A little more than a week before Mandela was hospitalised, producers announced that Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a highly ­anticipated biopic with Idris Elba in the lead, was in the final stages of post-production and will be released at the end of November.

This week, the company in charge of its making confirmed the release date was unlikely to change regardless of Mandela's health. That will put it on screens in South African and the United States over Christmas.

The timing of the release is dictated by a range of factors, primarily tapping into the holiday market and being in time for the American movie awards season. But in theory it could have been released any time since 1996, when local movie producer Anant Singh first acquired the rights.

In the intervening 17 years, the project saw several directors come and go, and much adaption of the screenplay.

Mandela's life has been subject to several movie and documentary treatments, many of them high profile.  Mandela featured Danny Glover, and Mandela and De Klerk starred Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine.

The latest movie is being punted as being in an altogether different class, regardless of its timing.

"The American distributors think there are a couple of Oscars in this one," says a production insider. "If everyone is sad about Mandela, you can count on that to get more votes."

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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